A Means to an End, the PhD and Professional Emergence

Andrew Pilsch posted a link to Matt Feeney’s article about the PhD doldrums that adds another perspective to the ongoing discussion here about finding work in the promised land, or at least having fun strolling through the desert even if you don’t make it there.

I agree with many of the things that Feeney has to say about what to do as a PhD student in the here-and-now such as connecting with folks outside the department, focus on what you’re doing right now–reading and working with the things that you’ve read, develop an engaging dissertation topic that will take you places (give the means to get to where you need to go do research), and getting done as soon as possible.

However, I don’t buy into Feeney’s first major point, “View the Ph.D. as an end in itself.” This sounds too much like spending precious time, money, and creative effort without some sense of where I am going. It reminded me of the picture above of Miao Miao playing in her catship. She’s having an awful lot of fun doing her cat thing, and she revels in the process of being-cat. However, she doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have a end goal in mind for her being-cat. For Miao, it is an on-going process of being-cat, or cat-emergence.

Unlike Miao, we, PhD students, have to have a means for providing for our being-professional, being-teaching, being-professor. Our emergence as an intellectual worker and teacher depends on our securing a job that enables our becoming. Miao, through the grace of the maker and Yufang’s and my good will, has the support and patronage that allows her cat-emergence as it configured within the confines of our house (her emergence outside the safety of our home would be very different than it is now). It is with this need of financial, institutional, and community support in mind that I consider an end goal, the PhD as a means to an end, the degree as a means to make my work possible.

Obviously, we all may not end up where we want to be at the end of the PhD process, but I intend to marshall every resource I have available to achieve my own pedagogical, research, and professional goals, all of which are made possible by my work in and beyond the PhD program.

I, like many of my friends in English PhD programs, began this arduous journey of learning and preparation in order to get some where, namely teaching and research. The latter augments the former through expertise and cultivating an ever-refreshing approach to teaching in the university environment.

Perhaps some folks begin PhD programs as a kind of holding pattern, not knowing what they want to do or where they want to go, but I, and many others, realized that we had a goal in our sights that was made possible only by the successful completion of our program with ancillary work augmenting our CV.

Furthermore, I and my compatriots joined this particular wagon train because we enjoy the journey as much as our arrival in the promised land–the frontier’s edge. Our journey doesn’t end there, at least not for all, because we should continue venturing further into unexplored territories of research, ideas, and pedagogy. We are, like Miao, in a continuing emergence of self as professor, researcher, and professional, but the PhD makes those things possible. Holding the degree as an end unto itself may erode the possibilities that the degree and one’s other work make possible.

Considering the PhD as an end unto itself is a step backwards. It reinstitutes the holding pattern, the wandering without a focus. We, as PhD students preparing for jobs in whatever way suits our individual goals, need to revel in the joys of our work and the professional preparation that we are daily engaged in.

Perhaps PhD programs do not instill enough plasticity into our selves that we can draw on if our goals do not work out as well as we would like. Finding new ways to employ our skills if we don’t land the job we desire is necessary. However, the PhD program is only one aspect of our lives, and the many other places in which we learn and those we learn from should augment our skills to roll with the punches, to seize success despite the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Enjoy the process, prepare for the punches, but most importantly, keep your eye on the prize.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.